Dementia, developmental disabilities and other health issues make it impossible for millions of Social Security recipients to manage their own benefits.
In those cases — more than 8 million a year — the Social Security Administration generally appoints a friend or family member to serve as the beneficiary’s “representative payee.” But in 21 percent of such cases there’s another problem: no friend or family member can be found. And, as the population ages, the agency expects the problem to get worse.
Through a new pilot program in Maryland, Social Security hopes to bridge that gap by recruiting volunteer attorneys to manage payments for beneficiaries who are unable to do so themselves and have no friend or family member.
“It’s the kind of situation where most attorneys would be able to step up pretty quickly,” said Sharon Goldsmith, executive director of the Pro Bono Resource Center of Maryland.
“While there is certainly some legal context,” Goldsmith said, “a lot of what they’re doing is really having to listen or just pay attention to what the client’s needs are, and making sure the paperwork is being processed appropriately and the I’s are dotted and T’s are crossed.”
Representative payees receive the beneficiary’s monthly Social Security or Supplemental Security Income payments and use the money to pay for the beneficiary’s food, clothing, housing and other needs. Payees are also responsible for keeping records of how each Social Security payment is used.
In fiscal 2012, about 8.4 million beneficiaries, or about 14 percent of nearly 64 million Social Security recipients, needed a representative payee, according to a May 2013 Government Accountability Office report. The number of beneficiaries in need of a payee grew by 20 percent between 2002 and 2011, the report stated.
The GAO report, which addressed potential long-term challenges posed by the representative payee program, said the proportion of the population made up of elderly individuals is projected to grow to nearly 20 percent over the next several decades.
The report noted that while age alone does not determine ability to manage payments, Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia are more common among older adults, often making the appointment of a payee necessary.
Social Security will provide training for attorneys who volunteer to serve as payees through the program, said Marianna LaCanfora, acting deputy commissioner of the administration’s Office of Retirement and Disability Policy. Licensed Maryland attorneys in good standing can volunteer for the pilot program on the administration’s website.
“Social Security looks forward to working with the Maryland legal community on the pro bono pilot, and welcomes any attorney who would like to volunteer as a representative payee for a beneficiary in Maryland,” LaCanfora said.
The agency is also working with local pro bono organizations, including the PBRC and Maryland Volunteer Lawyers Service, to expand outreach efforts and identify those in need of a payee.
Goldsmith said the PBRC fully supports the pilot program and plans to publicize it through a variety of channels, including the state and local bar associations. The center is also considering whether to offer training to attorneys who participate.
“That is something we typically do, so we most likely will be helping coordinate that,” she said.
The Maryland Volunteer Lawyers Service will screen potential clients for those who need a payee and make referrals to the agency, as well as help recruit attorneys to participate in the pilot, said Bonnie Sullivan, executive director of the organization.
Social Security has not identified a goal for the number of pro bono attorneys it hopes to recruit in Maryland, but the agency said the program may expand to other states in the future.
“This is really an effort to build up the program and see what works and what doesn’t work and test the concept,” Sullivan said. “I don’t think they’re looking at this project to solve all the problems, but it’s certainly a step in the right direction.”